So I guess this will be the last part of an Elite Capture trilogy, but seriously this book has me thinking and thinking hard about a lot of things that I am involved in. About communities and movements, organizations and institutions. This time the ideas from Olúfẹ́mi O. Táíwò’s book collided with Capitalism and Dispossession, a collection of research papers and essays about the Canadian mining industry at home and abroad. Edited by David P Thomas and Veldon Coburn, this anthology ends with a look at the Canadian banking industry in Latin America and the Caribbean. For more details about the book, because I’m only going to pick out a couple of key ideas, you can read the review that one of my kids wrote about it. Halfway into the review I ordered my own copy.

So here’s what I’m thinking about today. Mining companies forming relationships with Indigenous communities and then putting that relationship on their glossy brochures and publicity materials. Mining companies talking about how they clean up and provide jobs and blah blah blah. Because it’s all sleight of hand and there’s a word for it.


I came across this word in an essay by Tracy Glynn about a Vale mining operation in Indonesia. She did a photovoice study and gave cameras to several women in the Karonsi’e Dongi and Sorowako communities so they could document their lives. In this essay, Glynn writes about empathy as conscious resistance to mining and then touches on something that gives voice to my own discomfort with empathy and the way that it is often used. With the problem of empathy that I have a difficult time articulating because who doesn’t like empathy? She describes the actions of the women in the study, women whose communities have differences that could “easily fester into divisions” and yet in this photovoice study they expressed empathy for the other participants. The differences did not become divisions because of a subversive compassion.

Acting in a compassionate way towards another human and other life forms is .. a subversive act under capitalist social relations since it troubles the commodification of land and labour ..

Then Glynn addresses the mining executives, wealthy people who help others, who fund schools and hospitals. And we’ve all seen it. The Gates Foundation, the charity of Bezos. But it also operates in other ways. In the Canadaland podcast series The White Saviours, the host remarks that when charity is your business the poverty of others becomes a necessity. I forget how he phrased it exactly but you get the idea. This is probably most of the charity of the western world, a kind of charity that assumes the poor will always be among us. I cringe at this because I remember telling my kids that our privilege was a responsiblity to help the less fortunate and when I remember that I just want to curl up somewhere in shame. The less fortunate. Yuck.

Anyway, Glynn cites LaMothe who calls this “miscompassion":

a kind of compassion that “can function to actually hide the sources of the suffering that result from the market, which meas, in these cases, that compassion colludes with the principalities and powers.”

Going to sit with that for a moment. Join me in staring contemplatively at the water while we think through the profound difference between these two things and what kind of compassion most organizations actually wind up providing. What that means for the marginalized communities who agree to it.

silhouette of person sitting on bench near body of water during daytime
Photo by Toni Reed on Unsplash

Compassion can be subversive and disrupt colonial systems, but it can also mask the harms of colonial systems; and those that these systems have violently pushed to the margins (a phrase that I heard Robyn Maynard use once and I’ve been using ever since) find themselves both the recipients of miscompassion and actors in it. Politics of scarity practially require it of us. Governments want us to incorporate as non profits. They reorganized Indigenous communities into hierachies that make sense to them, a few at the top that they can deal with predictably. Funding comes with strings and scarcity means we take what we can get.

This photovoice study done by Glynn is really interesting because these two communities, the Karonsi’e Dongi and Sorowako, have different experiences of Vale mining.  Both are displaced and experience harm but the Sorowako have found precarious employment in the operation which limits their capacity to speak out against it.  In the midst of that however, their photographs, however, demonstrate that subversive compassion for the Karonsi’e Dongi.  And the Karonsi’e Dongi recognize the limitations imposed on the Sorowako.

So I think about the communities I find myself in, communities where difference has resulted in division. Urban vs Rez. Black vs Indigenous. White feminists vs. Feminists of colour. Status natives vs Non-Status. Straight vs Queer vs Trans. And on and on and on. All of our differences resulting in division while we fight over the funding crumbs of miscompassion that masks the source of harms. And now you know I’m going to segue into Elite Capture because here we go again.

Elite capture is how the powerful have co-opted the language of identity to suit their interests at the expense of others. Co-opted what it means to be Black. To be Indigenous. To be a woman. To be gay. Co-opted in a way that makes it more suitable to needs of colonial power. More coherent maybe. Identities are a mixture of fixedness and fluidity. We talk about them as if they are fixed things, but even a quick view of the past 100 years, let along the last 500 or 2000, demonstrates change. Most arguments about identity are in that fixed/fluid space. Because funding and belonging are tied to identity and elite capture controls identity, leaning more heavily into what makes it fixed. Leaning into what can be categorized and put into spreadsheets. More than that, this capture contributes to what makes miscompassion possible.

Elite capture makes miscompassion possible.

Because if we refused their money. If we saw it for the masking that it is and refused that help what would happen?

Now. I’m not talking about somebody taking a job because they have to pay rent. Maybe I am but hang on because I’m not faulting that person. The Sorowako people took the work at the Vale mining operation because having been displaced they needed work. The fault lies with the government and a capitalist system that left them no other choice. A subversive compassion works against these systems and how can we work against these systems if we are taking their money?

I get it. No ethical consumption under capitalism. But where and how do we draw lines? Say that this is something we can and must refuse? And if it is those at the top of our communities making these decisions, what do we do when we disagree with them? When we realize that we ARE them?

In his book, Táíwò gives a really interesting reading of the Emperor’s New Clothes. I’m sure you’re familiar with the story, how the emperor walked around naked and everyone stayed quiet except that one kid who was all haha, he’s naked. We often take a simple lesson from it, fear of retribution, but Táíwò doesn’t let us get away with that. Shit’s complicated.  He doesn’t dismiss the fear of retribution, that is certainly one problem, but it’s more than that.

Power structures give people all kinds of reasons to play along with the things we are being asked to ignore. Our social relationships are structured by power towards ignoring certain things. Our common beliefs, the things that we collectively believe to be true and how those beliefs shape our reactions to other things. Refusal to speak may have to do with how we experience the thing we will not name, it may benefit us. By aligning with power, elites also control our beliefs and experiences and our conversations about these things. We may come to believe that the emperor is in fact clothed and doubt ourselves for being unable to see it. Our own lives might rely on that shared belief, or it could be that it simply does not impact us one way or another.

Value capture, writes Táíwò, is a process by which we begin with rich and subtle values, encounter simplified versions of them in the social wild, and revise our values in the direction of simplicity - thus rendering them inadequate.

And the elite capture our values just as they capture everything else about us. The things we value, the things we prioritize also impact our ability to see and name the things that the powerful do not want us seeing and naming.

The answer to all this lies in the child’s reaction. By calling out the truth of the emperor’s lack of clothes, the child breaks the spell. The one with nothing to lose confronts our own apathy, our own capacity to, for whatever reason, go along with the collective agreement about how we will live. And if you’re wondering why this generation seems particularly volatile, remember that Gen Z has nothing to lose. No pension, no home ownership, no job stability. They have nothing to lose in calling out what we have stayed silent about because it doesn’t affect us, because we’ve come to believe in it, because we’ve been afraid.

The child calls us to a subversive compassion that joins us together across the differences that have become divides. A subversive compassion that rejects the politics of recognition and the terms being imposed upon us.

What is often framed as corporate social responsibility may address local community grievances but it does so in ways that are wholly inadequate because while they may build schools and apartment blocks and hospitals, they persist in expoitation and extractions. A miscompassion that provides help for the problems that they persist in creating. Government aid does the same thing. Charities. Short term missions. All engaging in help that does not challenge the source of the harm. Offering assistance and, at times, sanctuary, while maintaining policies and laws that ultimately protect corporate interests. Again and again the essays in Capitalism and Dispossession show that these transnational mining corporations are Canadian enough to warrant diplomatic assistance to operate in other countries, but not Canadian at all when it comes to investigating human rights complaints.

Everywhere Canadian and US capital goes. Violence follows. And miscompassion covers it up. Those are the emperors clothes that we are asked to ignore, the common beliefs we are asked to share, the unity we are asked to support. So we must constantly ask ourselves, is this version of humanity that elite capture has defined and presented us with, is this the one we should be promoting and supporting to the exclusion of others?  In looking at our own structures, formal and informal, we should be asking ourselves who does this formation serve?

Are we engaging in a subversive compassion?

A subversive compassion

Last time I talk about Elite Capture. I promise